Ivan Coyote is an award-winning author, filmmaker and storyteller.
When I graduated from F.H. Collins Senior Secondary School in Whitehorse, Yukon in 1987, my plan was to never set foot in another high school again. I was going to put my hometown in the rear-view mirror, move to the big city, and be a writer and an artist.
It is 33 years later, and I just finished the first draft of my thirteenth book. I’m a full-time writer and performer. Before the pandemic, I spent an average of 220 days a year on the road, performing in theatres and festivals all over the world. My real life has exceeded every dream my teenage self ever dared to imagine.
I kept every promise I made to myself back then, except for the part where I never set foot in another high school again.
Eighteen years ago, a teacher friend of mine asked me to come to her school and read some of my work to her students, and talk to them about writing and the writing life. I still remember that day, how my heartbeat thrummed in my ears as I drove out to Burnaby, how my mouth went dry as I walked through those big glass doors and the smell of a high school hallway rattled all of my own ghosts loose in my chest.
My teacher friend met me in the office and walked me down to the library. A bell wheezed from a geriatric speaker somewhere and the kids started to file in. The jocks sat in the back, elbowing each other and snickering. The quiet girl sat in the front row, her nervous smile greeting mine. The librarian introduced me and a hush slowly rippled and settled over 100 teenagers. They listened. They laughed. They asked smart questions. When did I first come out of the closet? What did my parents say? Did my grandmother still love me? How did I get to be so brave?
This is the power of stories. The power of speaking up. The learning that comes from listening.
In the car on the way home I rewound and replayed every moment. I thought about how different my deeply closeted high school years would have been if someone like me had stood up in the library back in 1985 and simply said, “I am queer and unashamed. I am trans and I am loved.”
I did the math in my head. Ten per cent of 100 kids is 10 kids. I might have made difference today for at least 10 kids, I thought. I told them they were loveable. I told them they were worthy. I might have showed them they were not alone.
If I do the math again today, I have now performed for over half a million youth, in public and private schools on five different continents. I meet them, I tell them stories, and I listen to theirs. I also speak to teachers, and school staff and administrators, too. We talk about gender neutral bathrooms and change rooms. We talk about chosen names. We talk about respect. We talk a lot about pronouns.
Describing what it feels like when someone refers to me by the wrong pronoun is a difficult thing to do. It is not enough for me to just ask the men to imagine what it would feel like if a room full of strangers suddenly insisted on calling you a lady. It is not enough for me to ask the women what it would do to your spirit if you dressed up for a nice dinner and the waiter repeatedly called you sir. If you are a person who has always (for the most part) fit into the gender box you were assigned at birth, then you will never truly be able to understand me, but I will attempt to tell you about it anyway. I’m going to try to explain it to you using the best tool this world has ever invented to help us understand each other. I’m going to tell you a story.
A few years ago, I was speaking at a conference for LGBTQ2S youth. Hundreds of kids from all over the province had travelled to be there, along with their ally teachers. There was a feeling of elation in the building. Queer and trans kids were gathering and talking. No one was going to call them a faggot in the hallways. No one would question which bathroom they used, what clothes they were wearing, what name they wrote on their name tags. They could be out. Proud. Unafraid. For the next 6 hours.
A teacher raised her hand to ask me a question. A quiet boy sat at the table beside her, not looking up.
“I’m here with my student Jennifer. I mean, James. James. I’m just having such a hard time with the whole pronoun thing. I’ve known her since kindergarten. I’m sorry. I mean him. I’ve known James all of her life. I mean his life. I’m sorry. I’m trying.”
All eyes were suddenly upon James. His ears flamed red, his shoulders curved forward into an armadillo shape of shame and embarrassment. A wave of hushed whispers rolled through the room. Not only had the entire gymnasium full of strangers just been told the name James was trying to get everyone he knew to forget, his well-meaning teacher had just outed James to three hundred other kids, most of whom, like me, had no idea James was trans until someone who probably cared about him very much had announced it to everyone. James didn’t ever look up from the table he was sitting at for the rest of the day. I watched him board the school bus at three o’clock: silent and walking alone. He had arrived as himself, but left as someone else. Someone he used to be. Even in a room full of LGBTQ youth and their allies, James left feeling less seen, less welcomed and less safe than he was when he arrived.
That’s the thing about pronouns. They are short little words that can easily become weapons if wielded incorrectly. I am a full-grown adult. I know who I am, and I have worked for decades to feel comfortable in this body, to carve out a space shaped exactly like me in this world that works so hard to force us all into one of two narrowly defined and binary boxes. I’m privileged enough to be able to be out about being a trans and non-binary person. Being referred to by the wrong pronoun rarely results in me being fired instead of hired, reviled instead of respected, or placed in danger instead of being safe. But even still, it stings. It feels like you are talking about me, but pointing to a place in the room where I am not standing. Like you don’t really see me, or do not care enough about me to learn to correctly pronounce my name.
But please don’t think about me as you decide whether or not to care about respecting your students’ pronouns. Please think of kids like James, and promise me you will do better by him. ❚